As a beginner beekeeper, there are several ways to get your honey bees. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages. You can
1. Get a Swarm
This can be a fun way to get bees, and has the big advantage that it is free. You can just put your name down on a swarm list with your local Beekeeping association, which will often give preference to beginner beekeepers. Provided you have the help of an experienced beekeeper, a swarm is easily collected and placed in your hive, and you have a ready made colony.
But there are some disadvantages with this method of getting honey bees. It is very unpredictable – you never know quite when you will get a swarm, and there will often be other people on the list also waiting for a swarm.
Because there is no brood, you have no way of judging how good the queen will be, and swarms will often need requeened as soon as possible. Equally, you have no way of knowing the disease status or temperament of the bees in a swarm, as its origin is unknown. It is also unlikely that you will get honey in your first year, although this does depend on the size of the swarm, and the time of year – the earlier the better.
2. Package Bees
Package bees consist of 2 to 3 lbs of loose bees and a queen in a separate cage, all in a specially designed box that can be sent through the mail. There will also be a can of sugar syrup for feeding during transit. Apart from a swarm, this is the cheapest way to buy honey bees. Because of the strain of transport, the bees can sometimes be difficult to introduce to the hive (especially if the weather is bad), but generally this is a relatively easy way to start beekeeping.
3. Nucleus colony
A nucleus colony (or ‘nuc’) is just a small temporary hive, usually containing 4 or 5 brood frames. It will contain a working queen, about 10,000 worker bees and plenty of brood, honey and pollen. You will usually collect your nuc locally, so the bees will definitely be suited to your area – a real advantage.
The queen is a nuc is usually new, and you will be able to see by looking at the brood just how productive the queen is. By transferring this into your beehive, your bees should get off to a great start, and you should have a good chance of honey in your first year.
The main disadvantage is, because you are buying an established colony (albeit a small one) this is a more expensive way to get started than just getting loose honey bees.
4. Fully established colony.
Buying an existing colony is the most expensive option, although do remember that you will not need to buy a new hive. The main advantage of this is that you will hit the ground running. The colony will already be fully established, with a full box of brood and stores, so you are much more likely to get honey in the first season.
Apart from the cost, there can potentially be problems with disease, and the queen will probably be older so may be reaching the end of her productive life. Also, as the hive is used it may need replacement parts sooner.
If you do decide to go down this route to start beekeeping, get an experienced beekeeper to check out the colony for any problems before you buy.